AMC’s The Walking Dead began its 8th season with a hallucinatory march to war that bordered on surreal horror. The midseason finale of that aired on December 10th 2017 wrapped up the first stretch of the cataclysmic All Out War arc with a different kind of horror: one all too final and all too inescapable. After emerging as the hero he was born to be, Carl Grimes, played by Chandler Riggs, revealed himself to be dying of a Walker bite. Carl singlehandedly organized the escape from Alexandria, heroically stared down Negan, and led all of his friends and family to safety. But whatever future the heroes face, Carl – who has been there since the show’s beginning – will not see the end of it.
In The Walking Dead comic book series which the show has begun following more closely since the debut of Negan, Carl not only survives the war with Negan’s Saviors, but remains a central character years beyond that story arc. So the character dying on the show is a shocking departure that could send the series spiraling wildly off of the comic series’ blueprint. Fans and critics alike were shocked, but it seems that no one was more shocked about Carl’s fatal injury than Chandler Riggs and his family.
Riggs put a brave face on it for a recent interview with EW, emphasizing his excitement to be moving to Los Angeles and focusing on his music career, but admitted that hearing the news of Carl’s death from showrunner Scott M. Gimple was “devastating” and that it took some time to realize Gimple was not joking. Riggs’ father, William, put his own feelings on the matter much more bluntly in a now-deleted Facebook post, of which screen captures remain.
“Watching Gimple fire my son 2 weeks before his 18th birthday after telling him they wanted him for the next 3 years was disappointing,” the elder Riggs fumes. “I never trusted Gimple or AMC but Chandler did. I know how much it hurt him.”
The Walking Dead has, of course, not been a stranger to behind-the-scenes drama, ranging from the contentious firing of original showrunner Frank Darabont to a lawsuit filed by the show’s producers against AMC, its own network. So it’s not so surprising that a popular actor’s departure could come with behind-the-scenes tension too. None of it diminished what an amazing episode the finale was, though, nor Riggs’ emotional performance throughout it. For all of Season 8’s spectacular action and potent storytelling, we haven’t had anything that’s made the same kind of waves as Season 7’s introduction of Negan and the revelation of who he would kill. To see The Walking Dead take such a bold step away from its printed source material and become its own maverick entity is an even bigger move and could be the moment that defines its future.
A show this far into its life cycle needs to take bold risks to stay relevant and Carl’s doom has gotten people talking about The Walking Dead in a passionate way again. It could reap huge benefits, but at a great cost. Chandler Riggs and Carl Grimes have been at the core of The Walking Dead for eight years. No matter what else happens now, it will be a different show without them.